Friday, February 25, 2005

On The Complexity Of Life

I've been thinking lately about the way people are constantly trying to grasp the world around them, and how life always seems to elude our grasp. Just when we think we have it all figured out, it goes and does something that doesn't fit our mental model of how the world should work.

It is in the nature of humans to try to make the complex simple. Our world would work so much better if we could assign one motive to our actions or to the actions of others-- "I went back to work for the sake of my kids." "He made that decision because he's greedy, pure and simple." But if we take the time to dissect all the reasons that go into our decisions, it's never actually that pure and simple. Yeah, maybe I did do it for my kids, but I also did it because it felt safer than facing my real problem. I also did it because I wanted the prestige I thought it would give me. I also did it because my Girl Scout leader did it and she and her kids turned out OK. I also did it because fifteen years ago I read something in a horoscope that's been kicking around in the back of my mind ever since. Even for my own decisions, there's no way to pin down all the reasons, and no way of knowing for what percentage of the decision each reason was responsible. It may seem now like the kids' welfare was first and foremost, but I could only be telling myself that to hide the pain of the real reason, that I'm running away from something, and it won't be obvious until many years later. How much more impossible is it then to judge the reasons of another person? Le coeur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connait point*.

Likewise, we often feel emotions that are more than polyphonic-- they actually conflict with each other. For example, when I found out one of my ancestors had been a slave, I was glad that I'd found this ancestor's name, sad that she'd been a slave, ashamed that I was also descended from her owner's son, wondering what race she had been (there were slaves of all races at that time), guilty that I'd thought that it mattered, curious whether her relationship with the father of her child was consensual, upset that it might not have been, dreamy in the romance of it all if it was, holier-than-thou at the thought that I now have provable slave ancestry and thus have some kind of standing among people who think having slave ancestors gives one some special insight into civil rights, and bewildered at the thought that I might actually care what that sort of people thought of me. All these emotions from reading one word-- "escrava"-- in a moldy old Portuguese document on a microfilm in the basement of an old stone building. Which of those was my "real" emotional reaction? How much more complex are the emotions we feel for our loved ones? How much more complex are our political opinions? How much more complex our sexuality?

Thus it is not hypocritical, but instead perfectly natural, for me to be happy that my friend was not killed in Iraq, even as other people (both military and civilians) are. Can't I simultaneously rejoice for him, grieve at the death of others, and be horrified at the slaughter of innocents? Is there a particular reason why I ought to feel only one thing? Oh, yeah, that's right. I should only feel one thing because it would make my critic's world a lot simpler.

The waters of the mind may look clear, but they're full of the microscopic bacteria of forgotten and suppressed reasons, some of which are only discernable in the giardia of hindsight. (Yeah, I know that last sentence was a particularly terrible bit of writing. I'll remind you I was a math major. I leave the really good writing to my brother-in-law.)

*"The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing." --Blaise Pascal